Academic journal article Social Justice

From Maximum Feasible Participation to Disenfranchisement

Academic journal article Social Justice

From Maximum Feasible Participation to Disenfranchisement

Article excerpt

As a consequence of a unique confluence of political, economic, and social factors, the Great Society programs established by President Lyndon B. Johnson helped broaden the basis for citizen participation in poor urban communities across the U.S. In the context of the Civil Rights Movement and an apparently strong and growing economy, Johnson declared a War on Poverty in his State of the Union address in January of 1964.(1) The Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) of 1964 became the legislative linchpin. It called for maximum feasible participation of residents living in the poor neighborhoods served by newly established community action programs.(2) In his State of the Union Message, Johnson explained: "I propose a program which relies on the traditional time-tested American methods of organized local community action to help individuals, families, and communities to help themselves" (quoted in Sundquist, 1969: 23). Yet the designers of community action were unprepared for the political challenge that participants would pose to the established political regimes in different locales (see, e.g., Sviridoff, 1989; Yarmolinsky, 1969). City officials from across the U.S. responded to the challenge by pressuring the president to limit the poor's policymaking role.(3)

Nevertheless, the War on Poverty expanded local citizenship, albeit for a short time. This contrasts sharply with the disenfranchisement and urban disinvestment that characterizes the contemporary policy context. Commitment to maximum feasible participation of the poor has disappeared from the welfare policies of the 1980s and 1990s. Emphasis on community action and comprehensive, multiservice, community-based approaches to fighting poverty has receded from public discourse. So have calls for local community control over the assessment of community needs and the design and implementation of antipoverty programs. Contemporary welfare reform shifts control over funds for social support to the individual states, but it does not require or invite the active participation of community residents and welfare recipients in program design, resource allocation, and implementation. However, certain features that were prominent in the Community Action title of the EOA have gained renewed popularity in the contemporary conservative political climate: namely, community service and decentralization. In this article, I demonstrate how the progressive aspects of community action shifted to serve conservative ends in the 1990s. Contemporary welfare policy reform embodies this shift, which narrows rather than expands the citizenship of the poor.

Low-Income Women in the War on Poverty

Community action programs (CAPs) funded under the Economic Opportunity Act provided the opportunity for women from low-income communities, particularly women of color, to gain leadership experience and to get paid for much of the work they already were doing for their communities for free (see Naples, 1998a). Symbolically, if not also in practice, CAPs merged antipoverty policy with the expansion of citizenship rights (see also Sarvasy, 1994; Slim, 1994). During the War on Poverty, CAPs provided resources to low-income communities and offered sites designed to expand poor residents' political participation. In particular, the CAPs created a context for women with no training in community work to develop their political skills and for those with previous experiences to share their political analyses and develop their political networks. As a consequence of the War on Poverty, many community workers deepened their political perspectives and organized much more broadly than they did when they first began as community workers.

Analysts disagree over the extent to which designers of the EOA actually intended for the CAPs to organize the poor. In fact, in a 1966 study of how 20 cities implemented community action, Stephen Rose (1972) reports that less that three percent of the CAPs "were in any way designed to organize the poor, to transfer power, or to change the institutional structure. …

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